In the twenty-third episode of the third season of The Next Generation, I AM A HORRIBLE MESS. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
Trigger Warning: For talk of ableism, death, aging, cancer.
Holy shit, HOW DOES THIS SEASON KEEP GETTING BETTER AND BETTER. I mean, I know why: the writers are finally taking huge risks in their storytelling, and they’re more willing to ground those same tales in emotion. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) This is a bold story meant to address the affects of old age, and it absolutely would not be as powerful if they’d not take a huge chance with giving said story to Sarek.
I admit that I was biased to enjoy this precisely because it affected me so deeply. I had to watch my father die from Alzheimer’s and brain cancer. It was a slow, tragic process, until it happened very suddenly. Until my dad got his first diagnosis, just six months before he passed out of our lives, we remained in denial. His receding memory was just something we chalked up to time, unaware of the irony of such a thought. When he started losing weight â€“ my father had always been a big guy â€“ we simply assumed that he had finally changed his diet for the better. We even told ourselves after his first diagnosis that things weren’t so bad and that we’d have all the time in the world with him.
That’s certainly the case for some people. I think we were insulated from death because our mother had survived lung cancer twice, including a rather brutal surgery. We didn’t have to accept mortality because someone we knew had beaten it. But that’s not how this works, and we learned it the hard way. I learned it the hard way, and I had to watch someone fade away. Mentally, physically, and emotionally. I recently found the letter my dad wrote me a couple weeks before he passed, and it was stuffed into the corner of a box I’d not unpacked. In a rush to get all my stuff out of my old apartment in Oakland, I’d jammed it in between two books, hoping that they’d protect the paper and keep it from getting damaged. I had not read it in years, not even when I found it again in a filing cabinet under my desk, and I knew that it was littered with spelling errors, bad sentences, and scratchy writing. I knew it was a snapshot of a specific time.
I read it again a few days ago, and the misspellings were all signposts. They were blotches of darkness. I recalled the last phone conversation I had with him and he had asked me when I was going to bring home a nice girl and get married and have kids. This didn’t hurt me because I thought that my father was trying to deny me being gay. It hurt because he’d spent so little time knowing I wasn’t straight that he’d simply forgot. I reminded him I didn’t date women, and he laughed and said, “Oh, that’s right.” There was a long silence before he asked me if I’d graduated college.
I had to remind him multiple times that I disappointed him before he died.
I don’t know that I ever idolized my father. We were too distant due to a number of factors. I was not his favorite son, and he preferred westerns and football over Jane Austen and The Twilight Zone. There wasn’t a hero worship of him as we see between Picard and Sarek, but that doesn’t mean I don’t understand the base emotion at work here: Picard does not want to be the one to destroy someone he admires. We see that in the others, too. Mendrossen and Sakkath both enable this denial, and even Perrin tries to ignore the truth. It’s not because they don’t think Sarek can handle his old age; they’re clearly quite aware of his capabilities. They have a desperation to give him one last bit of greatness so that he can die with dignity.
But I’d offer up the fact that this kind of thinking makes it harder for everyone. We like to imagine that life ends gracefully, and I can’t say I know a single person in my life who has passed who managed to accomplish that. Death is often messy, devastating, and horrifying. And instead of allowing us to talk about this, our preoccupation with a “dignified” death is pushing us further and further into denial. Hell, even from a practical standpoint, these characters could have figured out a solution to the negotiation a lot earlier without having to go through the nightmare we see here. This could have happened if death and again were not so taboo to us.
From a purely selfish standpoint, of course, that struggle made “Sarek” one of the best things in the entirety of the Star Trek canon. This is an intimate, uncomfortable, and heartbreaking episode. Both Patrick Stewart and Mark Lenard give monumental performances here that are raw and scary, and it’s almost like this is a different show, just for a single episode. And beyond that, the writing is electrifying. How else can we describe the importance of seeing a Vulcan cry? How can I ever cope with Sarek’s outburst? Or watching him scream “Illogical! Illogical!” over and over again, knowing that he’s telling himself that he’s lost his ability to remain purely logical?
OR WHAT ABOUT PICARD’S STUNNING MONOLOGUE POST-MIND MELD? WHAT ABOUT THAT? Is there a finer moment for this man in this show??? (Don’t tell me, obviously.) I always knew that Patrick Stewart was a great actor, but what the fuck??? WHO ALLOWED THIS TO HAPPEN, WHAT DID WE DO TO DESERVE SUCH GREATNESS???
It’s been really satisfying to re-evaluate my feelings on The Next Generation this season, and I think this episode marks a huge turning point for me. This show is so much better than The Original Series, even if it took quite some time to reach that point. Most of season three has shown me why it is often more beloved than its precursor, and it makes me eager every week to pop in another disc and watch five more episodes of this show. I had watched so many clunkers, been disappointed by the bizarre politics of the show, and had felt like The Next Generation was a safe and saccharine science fiction world. That’s not the case at all, and I’m so happy to be able to say that.
The video for “Sarek” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
Mark Links Stuff
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